Why Smart People Fall For Stupid Facebook Hoaxes

If you were on Facebook this week, you may have seen a panicked post advising you and and your friends to beware a tainted video called “Dance of the Hillary.” Widely circulated via social media, email, and SMS, the cut&paste warning advised readers to “inform all contacts” that once opened, the video would unleash a virus designed to wreak havoc on mobile devices.

A worthy warning, if it were true. But it wasn’t. In fact, the dreaded “Dance of the Hillary” virus warning was no more than an unimaginative retelling of a harebrained Facebook hoax called “Dance with the Pope” that made the rounds of social media last December. Don’t believe it? Here’s how the “Dance of the Hillary” Facebook hoax was worded:

“Please inform all contacts from your list not to open a video called the “Dance of the Hillary.” It is a virus that formats your mobile. Beware it is very dangerous. They announced it today on BBC radio. Fwd this msg to as many as you can.”

Here’s the Pope hoax:

“Tell all contacts from your list not to accept a video called the “Dance of the Pope.” It is a virus that formats your mobile. Beware it is very dangerous. They announced it today on the radio. Fwd this msg to as many as you can!”

If you think only the most naive people pass around stupid Facebook hoaxes, do think again. This week’s Hillary hoax, as well as the Pope hoax, the Facebook privacy scam, and dozens more just like them, were earnestly passed around by all sorts of well-meaning albeit ignorant people. They probably thought they were doing their friends a favor. In actuality, they evinced some rather pedestrian psychology.

The psychology of Facebook hoaxing and people who spread bogus rumors

People spread Facebook hoaxes and other sorts of blatant misinformation for a variety of reasons. Some share bogus info to draw attention to themselves or to tout their dubious investigative skills. Some spread hoaxes to discredit specific individuals or ideas. Some pass along inaccurate information because they believe they will personally benefit in some way. Still others tout completely unverified “news” to fool people for the fun of it.

Evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Glenn D. Wilson explained the mindset of hoaxers in Psychology Today

“They may be people who feel they make no impact on the world, and this is one way they can do that, rather as fire-setters start fires then stand back to admire their handiwork. They see people running around and think `I did that!’ For people who feel they have no power, it is the capacity to influence events.”

Researchers at the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-technical Systems at Northeastern University in Boston observed the social media habits of more than two million Facebook users. Study results published under the title Collective Attention in the Age of (Mis-)information concluded that Facebook users are willing to believe bogus info from shady sources because they generally mistrust mainstream media. The study also showed that persons with a tendency to trust outlandish conspiracy theories are more likely to share, “like,” and otherwise interact with Facebook hoax posts.


Verify before promoting panic

Everyone likes to share a story. This can be problematic, however, if the news being spread is bogus. Fortunately, there are a number of fact-checking sites that can instantly prove or disprove a story of indeterminate origin. Snopes, Hoax-Slayer, and FactCheck offer fast and reliable verification and debunking services for no charge. Facebook users who avail themselves of these free fact-checking services are far less likely to embarrass themselves by perpetrating stupid Facebook hoaxes.

Valuable advice from Hoax Slayer:

“Passing on false information about computer viruses and malware is counterproductive and will help nobody. If a silly hoax message comes your way, please do not share it with others. And please let the person who sent it to you know that the message is a hoax.”


[Feature image by Styf22/Thinkstock/Getty Images]

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